STATE COLLEGE — Four losses. Eight total points. The difference, James Franklin said, between a great program and an elite program.
“We’re comfortable with being great. That’s the issue,” the Penn State coach said Saturday night after the latest gut-punch loss for his Nittany Lions, a 27-26 loss to Ohio State. “Every single little thing matters. … No one’s happy with it. I could say it’s a moral victory, a one-point loss to a higher-ranked team. No. It’s not good enough.”
Since bursting onto the national scene with their own fourth-quarter surge against these Buckeyes in 2016, the Lions’ only losses have been of the excruciating variety.
The lost 52-49 to USC in the 2016 Rose Bowl, blowing a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. Ranked No. 2 in the country last year in Columbus, it was a 15-point lead that vanished in the fourth of a 39-38 loss. One week later, it was a three-point lead that didn’t hold up in the final frame, losing to Michigan State 27-24.
In this latest jaw-dropper, in front of a Beaver Stadium-record 110,889 fans, the No. 9 Lions found themselves up 12 (26-14) on the fourth-ranked Buckeyes with exactly eight minutes to go.
But Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins hit Binjimen Victor for 47 yards and K.J. Hill for 24, two touchdowns that gave the Bucks a one-point lead that stood up in the final 2:03 of the game.
Four losses. By eight points. And Franklin has had enough.
“I’m going to make sure everyone in the program, including myself, is uncomfortable. … Because that’s what it takes to go from a great team to an elite team,” said Franklin, easily the most animated he’s been after a game in his five years at the helm of the program.
“I’m ultimately responsible for all of it. We’ll find a way. We’re going to get this done. I give you my word. We are going to find a way to take the next step. … I’m not blaming the players. I’m not blaming the assistant coaches. It’s on me.”
From Penn State’s perspective, it never should have come down to a fourth-and-5 call.
But it did. And the Lions, confident and surging for most of the night, froze up with an entire nation of college football fans watching.
Fair or not, it’s what most people will remember from the loss. Quarterback Trace McSorley, who had the single most productive game by a single player in school history — 461 total yards (286 passing, 175 rushing) — ended up handing the ball off on offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne’s fourth-and-5 call from the Buckeyes’ 43-yard line.
Ohio State’s defensive line, even without injured All-American Nick Bosa, won the battle up front, promptly crashed into the backfield and dropped Miles Sanders for a loss, to the shock of all but a few fans in red amidst the White Out.
The Buckeyes initially called timeout before the decisive play after seeing how the Lions lined up. Then Penn State tried to get the Bucks to jump offside before calling a timeout of its own.
On the third time, the offense didn’t look settled as the play clock ticked down below five. And the play failed.
Sanders said the call never changed even in between the timeouts.
McSorley thought it would work.
“Fourth-and-5, I know exactly what Coach Rahne saw,” McSorley said. “I saw the same thing. The play was there to be made. We just didn’t make the play. They did a good job, they ran a twist and were able to get in the backfield quickly. We weren’t able to pick up that twist, and they were able to hit Miles right when he got the handoff and get him down.
“I know that’s a play that’s the deciding factor in the game. Coach Rahne is going to look at it, and I know exactly what he saw. It’s Coach’s decision, and I agree with what he saw. We just didn’t make the play.”
But there were a dozen other plays that could have made a difference for the Lions (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) instead. Despite outgaining Ohio State by 200 yards in the first half, Penn State led just 13-7 at halftime. They missed one field goal and settled for two more before halftime.
In the third quarter, down 14-13, the Lions passed up a short field goal attempt on fourth-and-1. The call was a short dump off to tight end Pat Freiermuth that looked destined for a big gain, but defensive end Chase Young swatted it away.
Penn State took the lead early in the fourth anyway as McSorley threw a 2-yard score to Freiermuth and Sanders tunneled in from the 1 to put the Lions up 26-14.
The Lions’ defense was looking as strong as it had all season, getting a Garrett Taylor interception and a Koa Farmer fourth-and-1 stuff of Haskins.
But the same problems that plagued the team in the first four weeks were too costly this time. Receivers had multiple passes clang off their hands. The defense had some ugly missed arm tackles on both decisive touchdowns by Victor and Hill.
On the positive side for the Lions — the talent gap between the two programs has largely disappeared, though the Buckeyes still have an edge in overall depth.
Few plays could have summed it up better than what KJ Hamler did to the always athletic Ohio State defense in the second quarter. On third-and-5 with McSorley taking the shotgun snap at his own goal line, he delivered a slant to Hamler, who snagged it in stride with three Buckeyes in the vicinity.
None of them could catch him.
Safety Isaiah Pryor in particular underestimated Hamler’s speed, taking a poor angle on the redshirt freshman and was only able to clip his heel on the way to the end zone.
The 93-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown would have been the longest play in Penn State history — if not for the fact that Sean Clifford had hit Daniel George for a 95-yard score just two weeks earlier in mop-up duty.
As it was, it tied the longest play ever allowed by the Buckeyes in their history.
Yet it was a Sanders fumble late in the second quarter that opened the door for Ohio State, which had opened the game with three punts, an interception and then four more punts.
The turnover set up a 26-yard score on a screen pass to J.K. Dobbins, who also found the end zone on the opening drive of the second half to give the Bucks (5-0, 2-0) their first lead.
Penn State surged after that. It wasn’t enough.
“I’m upset with myself,” Franklin said. “Because I know the guys in that locker room are hurting. We should have finished that game.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse